Oktoberfest 2023: Tracing The History Of This Beer Extravaganza

For beer lovers, every day is a celebration of the brew, but there’s one time of the year when it becomes an extra special centre of attention. Yes, we’re talking about Oktoberfest! The tradition from Munich, Germany that has spread across the world and become a beloved cultural movement begins at 12 pm on Saturday, September 16th and ends on Tuesday, October 3rd, 2023 this year. In Germany the occasion is marked with free-flowing beer taps, lots of sausage stands and an atmosphere of dance, laughter and merriment. But although today it’s a commercial event, it also has a long rich history that led up to this beer-y extravaganza. 

The first Oktoberfest can be traced back to 1810, where it had nothing to do with beer at all, in fact, it began as a horse race. It was originally conceived to celebrate the wedding of Prince Regent Ludwig of Bavaria (soon to be King Ludwig I) and Princess Therese of Saxony-Hildburghausen. The race took place on October 17, 1810, a few days after the royal wedding and was a time of great celebration for the citizens of Bavaria, and though it wasn't initially focused on beer, food, or amusement rides, it laid the foundations for Oktoberfest.

A year later, Munich saw the need for another grand festival, even without a royal wedding. The Bavarian Agricultural Association took charge, using the platform to showcase agricultural products. In 1813, due to the Napoleonic wars, Oktoberfest was cancelled for the first time. Going forward, it was privately funded until Munich reinstated it in 1819. The promise of prosperity and revenue made it an annual event.

In 1824, Dall’Armi, the festival's originator, received the city's first gold citizen's medal in recognition of his invention. A street in the Neuhausen-Nymphenburg neighbourhood was named in his honour. In 1850, the Bavaria statue was unveiled, symbolizing the festival's guardian and the state. However, the years following saw challenges, including a Cholera outbreak in 1854 and the Austro-Prussian War, which dampened the festivities.

It was in 1881 that Oktoberfest started to look more like the festival as we know it today. They introduced roast chicken as a festival staple, alongside other amusements and by the late 19th century, booths, carousels, and electric lights adorned the area and drew larger crowds. Breweries set up beer tents with musicians to entertain, leaving behind the small beer stalls.

In 1910, for Oktoberfest's centennial, a staggering 12,000 hectoliters of beer were poured at the Pschorr-Bräurosl tent. Financial crises and World Wars led to temporary closures in the 20th century, but the tradition persisted.  In 1950, Mayor Thomas Wimmer inaugurated Oktoberfest by tapping the first keg in the Schottenhamel tent, a tradition that continues today with the famous words 'O'zapft is' gaining cult status.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to the closure of the festival in 2020 and 2021. However, in 2022, Oktoberfest made a triumphant return, bigger than ever. It has evolved into the world's largest folk festival, with millions of annual visitors and record-breaking beer consumption. Oktoberfest is now an iconic part of beer culture, offering hundreds of brews under its banner. This year will mark the 213th year of this pilgrimage for beer lovers which is a tribute to history, celebrating over culture, joy – and of course – excellent beer!